Twelve ancestor souls have been preserved
In sepia tones one hundred forty years deep.
Still uncomfortable in their two-year-old freedom.
It’s a pseudo-freedom, the kind that pinches
Expressions tight like new church shoes.

Their settlement staggers along the sloped banks
Of a muddy river.
Southern dust clings to everyone, as if cursed
Earth itself were lusting to reclaim chattel.

No women present, they may be down at water’s edge
Scrubbing laundry, or themselves, trying to wash
Away master’s touch.

Among the Union men, two grin easy brown smiles.
Confident the worst has passed, they away acreage
And mule, and what that would represent.

Another’s face elusive, shrouded in shadows
With brim pulled low. He’s learned long ago:
Anonymity is safe, a lesson not easily forgotten.

Shrewd man squats militantly about-face,
Revealing nothing and revealing everything.
Three wear defiant auras with cocked hips and
Tilted shoulders, making no effort to hide
Their scar tissue and determination.

An obvious leader looms authoritative,
The centerpiece of this community.
Something in the way subtle assurance plays
Along his jaw line. His eyes the kind that draw
Lesser men into his orbit of confidence.

Strength personified, slavery never broke him.
His story is one of colored responsibility,
Mahogany struggle and the new black pain.
It’s in the straight back and slight smile.

Protective arm over his daughter’s shoulder.
The violently light-skinned girl clutches daddy’s
Ebony finger with a trusting pink hand.
His balm of gilead, her faultless love is enough.

All four children look downward or away,
Stare at small dusty feet, pick at weeds and
Itchy clothes, but none smile.
Strangely old before their time and sad
Around the eyes. Innocence threshed out
As they passed through slavery’s gin.

En masse these twelve wait, identities unknown
Or unimportant and lost to time or indifference.
Thought better forgotten like middle passage
And reconstruction promises.
But they are remembered and always will be,
Because the truth doesn’t whisper, it booms and
Their portrait speaks out in thunder tones.